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Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch review: sitting a spell

The long-awaited Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch has finally been released. Does it meet the high bar set by its pedigree?

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Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch makes a strong first impression. The adorable fairy tale boasts a truly gorgeous presentation, striking score, spirited dialogue, and stand-out voice performances. The hero of the story, a young boy named Oliver, is unfaltering in his earnest kindness, giving the proceedings a sweetness that stays just a hair's breadth from saccharine. Despite all its luster, though, the spell it casts is ultimately too short-lived to sustain such a lengthy adventure. The game isn't all syrupy-sweetness. Underneath the whimsy and gee-whiz earnestness, there is a current of severe melancholy. It is about a boy's magical adventure in a faraway land, but it's also about the first time he learns how suddenly life can be severed. Once you cross that threshold of knowledge, you can't go back. Oliver learns this lesson from the death of his mother. The trappings of childlike wonder seem almost cruelly juxtaposed against this stark reality. It presents a state of untapped imagination and innocence while reminding us that we can never return to it, at least not in any permanent state. This is a fairy tale, but it's a fairy tale in the classical sense, and that imbues its themes of loss with a tragic finality. That premise, which hints at a profundity rarely found in games, immediately hooked me. But then, the story quickly lost focus and its momentum ground to a halt. Therein lies the primary flaw of Ni No Kuni's epic scope. Oliver's journey to another world, hinged on hopes of saving his mother's alternate-universe "soulmate" and therefore his real mother as well, got lost amid the long stretches of world-building that had nothing to do with the heart of the story. It seemed that Oliver himself lost focus on his goal, which compromised my own emotional investment. Somewhere between helping a giant cow queen and finding three missing pieces of a magic wand (which was subsequently replaced by a better magic wand anyway), I found it difficult to care as much as I did in the game's first few hours. In fact, the game's final stretch feels like it was once the seed of a sequel, compressed and stapled awkwardly onto the game as a sort of quasi-epilogue. The motivation to wrap up the story neatly is understandable, but I would have preferred some loose threads and unresolved thoughts of what could be. A good game that never got its sequel is still a good game. One that overstays its welcome while rushing through remaining plot lines can taint memories that would otherwise be much fonder. This story tedium is matched by mechanics that start strong and then settle into a complacent inertia. Comparisons to Nintendo's Pokemon series are apt, as the game borrows the capturing, training, and evolution of "Familiars" wholesale. It's a more active battle system than Pokemon, including the ability to freely move and even switch back to Oliver for spell-casting. It also streamlines and automates some of Pokemon's processes. All special abilities use a shared MP pool, and all the bench-warming creatures gain some XP from battle even if they weren’t utilized in it. Swapping equipment and giving stat boosts by feeding the Familiars treats fuse more traditional RPG systems onto the creature-capturing milieu.

Your first Familiar, Mitey

But the monster-leveling process is painfully slow and that pace discourages experimentation. I found myself usually unwilling to try out new Familiars, since they would always arrive significantly under-leveled compared to my current ones. Given the choice between repetitiously grinding for hours using my current Familiars, and grinding for many more hours with a creature that has more potential, I tended down the quicker path to continue the story. Once companions join, each with their own Familiar in tow, they are inadequately equipped for the nuances of combat. You as the player only control one character at a time. This leaves the two others to run through pre-scripted AI routines via the Tactics menu. When I told them to do as they like, they would often let me or each other fall without sufficient attempts to heal. If I told them to prioritize healing, they would waste MP too quickly on minor wounds. None of the options gives any kind of consistently desirable rule set, and the frenetic pace of battle doesn't lend itself to keeping careful watch over everyone's actions. The frustration is akin to trying to perform a symphony with a game of Simon. The tool might grasp the rudimentary task of note-making, but it isn't up to such high demands. Between battle and story sequences, Oliver and company come across a multitude puzzles and townsfolk to help--though calling them "puzzles" may be too generous. These don't require any kind of creative thinking or intuition. Instead, the game has always granted one specific spell to solve a situation, and which one to choose should be obvious. If for some reason it isn't, the game doesn't give any penalty for an errant spell solution -- it simply informs you that nothing happened, so you can move on to trying another. As I reflected on Ni No Kuni, I was reminded of one of its quest mechanics. The game sets up constant fetching tasks for the "heartbroken," townsfolk who have some personality trait like courage or restraint in short supply. You're tasked with using a special amulet to find others who are overflowing with those qualities so you can pass on some of their largess, but the game simply highlights and informs you each time you discover someone with a little extra heart to give. The concept of retrieving lost sparks of humanity is fantastic, and just the sort of magical realism that the game does so well. In practice, it's emblematic of the type of dull monotony that fails to add to the game in any meaningful way. In many ways, I admire Ni No Kuni's early ambitions and nuanced tweaks to genre conventions. Its first few hours are bursting with promise. By the time I reached the conclusion, though, I was exhausted. I found its story mired in its own mythology, its clever RPG twists weighted down by staid tropes, and the experience as a whole missing a bit of its own heart. If only someone like Oliver could cast a magical spell to give it back.
This Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch review was based on retail PS3 code provided by the publisher.
Editor-In-Chief

From The Chatty

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    February 11, 2013 11:45 AM

    Steve Watts posted a new article, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch review: sitting a spell.

    The long-awaited Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch has finally been released. Does it meet the high bar set by its pedigree?

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      February 11, 2013 11:50 AM

      I just finished it last night. About 44 hours. Good review.

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        February 11, 2013 12:40 PM

        How close am I to the end? Right now I am getting the second of the three stones needed for the wand.

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          February 11, 2013 1:18 PM

          you have a while to go. double digit hours, I think.

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      February 11, 2013 11:56 AM

      grrr That makes me not want to bother to continue playing. I'm ~8 hours in and I've started to feel the grind with all the boring fetch and click quests (endless text blocks telling me to use magic are consuming most of the game time).

      The art is beautiful though so maybe I'll just drop it down to easy and try to blaze through it so I can see all the vistas.

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        February 11, 2013 1:04 PM

        I actually got the game, took time off for the game and then got my typical "game could suck" fear - haven't played it - gotta let my expectations drop.

        Once it occured to me from a few people this is a 'proper' RPG at points, my interest just faded and faded.

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          February 11, 2013 1:20 PM

          It's basically a throwback to 16-bit RPGs w/ some Pokemon thrown in. How much of the charm and idiosyncrasies of that era apply to you, vs. some of the annoying parts of the game, will likely result in whether or not you enjoy the game.

          It's good; not great.

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            February 11, 2013 1:34 PM

            I played Chrono trigger (emulated) about 6 years back and it slowly devolved from a game and world I found charming and interesting with ... mediocre but interesting combat to combat combat combat combat combat combat combat combat combat combat combat repetition combat combat combat repetition and so on.

            I am under the impression I got 4/5'th through the game and just said 'look, fuck this shit'

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          February 11, 2013 1:38 PM

          I don't know how this will sway you, but I typically don't like anime or JRPGs at all, and I am loving this game. It's huuuuuuuuuuge in it's density. I'm probably 8-10 hours in and I just got my first party member and it just introduced a new concept for my familiars that seems like it will be a very important piece of the game. I wish I had more time to devote to it in that kid kinda way like when I played Final Fantasy 2 on my SNES over Xmas break about 25 years ago. Even it's super corny Gee Willikers dialogue is fun and works for it.

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            February 11, 2013 2:15 PM

            It's people like you and a few other types I don't see as sperglord JRPG people which give me hope I still might like the game. The Gee Willikers stuff doesn't bother me, it's actually part of the reason I'm going in to it, I want more Journey / Okami style nice cheesy pleasant games, which I believe this is.

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      February 11, 2013 12:36 PM

      I really hope PS4 is backwards compatible.

      And doesn't have a crap controller.

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      February 11, 2013 12:52 PM

      I want to love this game, but this review nails one thing right on the head: how they handled familiars is just plain stupid. The game is absolutely brutal unless you use the same 3 familiars you started out with, because the ones you capture or accquire later on are just useless unless you go dump a pile of time into low level content to bring them up.

      At the same time, if you have them sit in the queue alongside your original familiars, the original familiars continue to gain more power, even though you're powerlevelling the low levels ones. Try to bring a lower levelled familiar, even by just a couple levels, into a even match will have them 2-3 shotted to death while doing almost no damage at all.

      It's ultimately why I quit the game about 10 hours in. It's a pretty game, and sounds amazing, but underneath it all, the combat system just plain sucks.

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        February 11, 2013 1:33 PM

        You quit 10 hours in? That's like, just after you get the ability to capture new familiars. You don't know what you're talking about, at all. I've switched to new familiars many times with no issue.

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          February 11, 2013 1:41 PM

          maybe he didnt realize he could have a high level familiar and bring in two noob familiars on the bench and power level the fuck outta them that way?

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            February 11, 2013 1:43 PM

            Yeah I can see how this might be a bigger pain later on, but I'm right about at that 10 hour mark and new familiars can just sit back and get usable fairly quickly just with normal playing.

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            February 11, 2013 2:01 PM

            I did. But at the same time I thought, 'these benched guys are always going to be significantly weaker than my first one'. I don't mind grinding current-level stuff, but I can't be bothered to go back and roflstomp low level stuff.

            I'm also concerned with having just one Sign available, with the whole affinity system making it so that 2 stars would destroy my one Sun guy

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      February 11, 2013 1:11 PM

      i heard there were "power level" pets in the game that allow you to handle this specific problem.

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        February 11, 2013 1:17 PM

        Yeah there's a specific familiar that appears in three different parts of the game that gives massive experience if you can kill it before it runs away in battle.

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          February 11, 2013 1:22 PM

          tokocolds. someone said you could infinitely farm them to catch up low level familiars.

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            February 11, 2013 1:32 PM

            They are at the end of the game. Literally, the last hallway...haha. I got one (by accident) and got 24,000 XP. I did farm for about 20-30 mins for original Tokos on that small island. 2,000XP ea.

            Overall, I think playing it on easy allowed me to avoid any grinding.

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              February 11, 2013 1:36 PM

              There's a middle ground one as well right outside Perdipa as well. That ones the easiest to farm because you can just enter the city to reset the spawns if none are on the map.

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                February 11, 2013 2:03 PM

                Also worth mentioning is the 2,000 Toko and re-casting whatever spell sends you back and forth to Motorville.

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              February 11, 2013 1:37 PM

              ah bummer

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              February 11, 2013 1:38 PM

              what is the diff between easy and normal anyway? abilities of enemies? more hp?

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              February 11, 2013 1:39 PM

              Thank you for this comment, when I do play it, easy it is.

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                February 11, 2013 2:11 PM

                imo this is one of those games where easy = normal and normal = hard.

                perhaps if MP wasn't so limited, but it is, and that makes combat difficult.

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                  February 11, 2013 4:43 PM

                  I appreciate your info, it might make me actually enjoy this game, damn hype train, weakness for ghibli and 'nice' worlds got me suckered in

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            February 11, 2013 1:34 PM

            That version doesn't show up until the final dungeon. There's other ones that come earlier.

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      February 11, 2013 3:10 PM

      Its a terriffic game, overly critical review for me.

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      February 11, 2013 8:37 PM

      I'm about 50 hours in and I'm still loving it. I would caution that the game is extremely punishing if you try to power through the storyline. But i have been moving very methodically through the game. in every town, i do all the errands and hunts available before moving on to the next area. Many of those errands involve a lot of wandering and exploring - that's when you get all your grinding done, and for me that's been an enjoyable experience. I'm playing on normal and I haven't run into any issues with being underpowered. Low MP is an issue and the AI is atrocious at MP management as said above, but, again, errands and hunts left me pretty flush with cash most of the time to keep a high stock of provisions. As far as leveling up new familiars, once you are able to get off the first continent, creatures are giving sufficient experience that i found that a level one familiar could be taken to level 25 and metamorphed in about 20 battles. It's really not that oppressive. Just keep your starter familiar with you at all times (he'll get you through 90% of your scrapes), start working on a second stringer, and by mid game you'll be able to start leveling new familiars pretty easily in your third slot.

      I was actually really surprised and disappointed to hear the lukewarm reactions to the game. I haven't had a game that scratched this itch in a long time, and I hope the middling response to this game won't scare off publishers from creating more games of this genre.

      if you're into studio ghibli and love oldschool snes rpgs, but are worried about running into the issues above, the best advice is to take your time and progress methodically...or swallow your pride and play on easy.

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      February 11, 2013 9:23 PM

      Aww kinda lackluster huh? I really wanted to play this too